Sunday, 3 April 2016

End of the Winter Season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The winter season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe is coming to an end with its final production, 'The Tempest'. I've seen all the plays this season - 'Pericles', 'Cymbeline' (see earlier blogs) and 'The Winter's Tale' - and a good season it's been.  The Sam Wanamaker is the indoor theatre at the Globe with it's beautiful, golden, panelled wood stage and backdrop, it's cushioned benches and the candles to light the stage, all very atmospheric and delightful. Now that the days are getting longer and (at least in theory) warmer, it's time to start readying the open-air Globe for its glorious summer. But not just yet.

I saw both 'Pericles' and 'Cymbeline' earlier the season and saw 'The Winter's Tale' a few weeks ago. I saw Kenneth Branagh's version with Judi Dench before Christmas and loved that production, opening with a Christmas set and carol singing just in time for that great time of year. I've seen it before (there was an awful production at the Old Vic 6-7 years ago) and it's not one of my favourite plays. In part, that's due to the characters.

We have Leontes of Sicilia who grows insanely jealous of his wife with no reason whatsoever, turns on a lifelong friend and forces a servant to try to kill him, imprisons his heavily pregnant wife and, when the Oracle at Delphi says she's innocent, refuses to believe her and his son dies. What a pleasant man. There are lots of ways of playing this role, almost slyly like Branagh or in wild fits of rage as in this production. I liked the rage.

I also find Hermione a bit problematic, Leontes wife who sees a loving and tender husband grow into a green monster overnight. And while denying adultery, she accepts everything her husband does to her, including imprisonment. Um, c'mon lass, have some backbone. And then, when she hears her son has died and she swoons into a feint and is pronounced dead to save her, she hides away for 16 years despite the whole kingdom being aware of Leontes grief and remorse at her passing. And in the end, she still loves him. O come on.

We also have Paulina, wife of Leontes chief aid, who is right about everything and I do mean everything. It can either be a powerhouse of a role or a damp squib of righteousness coupled with game playing and pulling the wool over Leontes eyes. It's not an easy role.

'The Winter's Tale' also has some of the most annoying 'rustics' in the whole of Shakespeare (and he wrote quite a few). We meet them endlessly in the second half of the play set in rural Bohemia with its farmers and farm girls, it's country dances and annoying accents. The vagabond rogue gulling daft farmers right, left and centre, making his fortune only to lose it again. O yes, it's all in there somewhere.

But at the heart of the play are two love stories, stories about friendship and trust and, as ever with Shakespeare, consequences. If you pay attention you'll learn a lot about jealousy and unthinking rage, about relationships and friendships and about love. It's always seemed strange to me that the big reconciliation scene takes place off stage and we simply have it reported by courtiers afterwards. Why is that? But it paves the way to the next reconciliation scene when Leontes and Hermione finally meet again after 16 years (and don't appear to have aged much, strangely) after she poses as an unloving statue only for Leontes to touch her and she comes alive.

John Light as Leontes, Rachael Stirling as Hermione and Niamh Cusack as Paulina were all excellent as were, to be fair, the rest of the cast (yes, even the annoying rustics). If I had to pick one word to describe this production it would be visceral.

'The Tempest' is very different territory and one of my favourites, a tale of magic and mystery, of revenge and love and of freedom and slavery.

You know the tale of Prospero, Duke of Milan, who is deposed by his brother who is supported by the King of Naples, and set sail only to be shipwrecked on a noisome  island where he raises his daughter Miranda. He finds Caliban already on the island and frees Ariel, a magical creatures from incarceration in an oak tree to do his bidding. His brother and the King are sailing nearby and Prospero calls up a tempest to shipwreck them on his island so he can take his revenge. The King's son falls in love with Miranda and she with him and they are betrothed before the gods so Prospero can forgive his former enemies, renounce his magic and return to his dukedom. The end.

It's a simple - and quite a lovely - tale, the kind of play it's easy to see an older man writing but there's a lot packed into it such as the nature of slavery with Caliban and Ariel, power and corruption with the King of Naples' brother plotting to emulate what happened in Milan, with drunken colonists and how they treat the native populations, o yes, there's so much to explore in this play.

I have great admiration for the set designer and the sheer imagination let loose on this play. The Tempest demands magic and there's not much scope for special effects in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse so creativity is required. I loved the opening scene when Prospero summons the storm and an ornately painted sea-scape is brought onto the stage with two people rocking the waves and the boats by hand - loved it! And I loved the actors falling en masse from one side of the stage to the other to simulate the rocking of the ship. So simple and yet so effective. And later when Ariel descended from the ceiling on ropes with her cape as wings like a vengeful angel to berate the King's company. And later still, we see the gods descend in similar fashion. Very impressive and unexpected.

There were also more simple techniques of bringing on stage a miniature island and using it as a prop in various scenes. For each scene, the island was turned round lightly to make it clear that the scene  was taking place in a different part of the island. Very simple and yet very clever that!

I suppose you're getting the impression that I liked this production? Well, you're right, I thought it was smashing and the best and least pretentious version of the play I've seen! It's marvellous! It brings out some of the humour in the play that's easily missed, such as Miranda's admiration at her first sight of men even though we in the audience can see they're nothing much and the actors feign embarrassment at the praise. And Ferdinand reminding Miranda with a gesture that she's forgotten to take a log off stage when he's completing the tasks demanded by Prospero. There was a good chuckle there.

There's marvellous storytelling and beautiful poetry in this play, as well as some harsh political lessons. Every now and then the poetry just shines from that stage and you marvel at it, wanting to roll it round your tongue and speak the lines.

Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes, nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange...

There are hints at magic and the ceremonies of John Dee, of the empire to come in strange, far off lands, of exploration and danger that make this one of Shakespeare's more interesting plays, at least to me.

Phoebe Pryce and Dharmesh Patel made a nice couple as Miranda and Ferdinand, our young lovers, Joseph Marcell was a solid Gonzalo (he also plays Cymbeline in the play of the same name) and Paul Rider was a trustworthy Alonso, King of Naples (who is also in 'Cymbeline'). A shout-out also to Dominic Dromgoole as Director of the production and Jonathan Fensom, the designer.

I wasn't terribly taken with Tim McMullen as Prospero or Fisayo Akinade as Caliban but I was quickly won over by Pippa Nixon's Ariel. I liked how she switched from almost magisterial in some scenes to a puzzled aborigine in others, marvelling at these strange creatures that have invaded her island. In other scenes she was almost a wild animal padding round her potential prey and, at the end when she is finally freed by Prospero, she stops and turns round once to check that he's not playing some game, before fleeing quicksilver-fast without a word. I wasn't sure at first but she's a powerful and potent Ariel. Well done Pippa!

The winter season is only on for another three weeks so, if you can, you'd be well advised to try to get tickets for either of these two plays. For me, I'm looking forward to the new summer season at The Globe, the Wonder season, with 'The Taming of the Shrew' in the first week of June. 

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